On my first visit to Darwin twenty odd years ago to cover the annual Aboriginal art awards a number of surprises lay in wait for me.
I had not been in Australia long then so was at least mildly surprised that certain of the competitors looked hardly more Aboriginal than I did. If I had still been writing for The Spectator in London that would surely have been one of the issues I mentioned – but l soon grasped that expectations were rather different here. In the event my then editor at the Australian almost certainly saved me from the fate suffered later on by Andrew Bolt for saying something broadly similar.
My next surprise, following the awards, was to find myself a guest at a dinner party thrown for me by senior local figures simply as a former columnist for The Spectator – which back then was still solely a UK publication of course. In the typical heat and humidity of the tropics a couple of my hosts told me that reading The Spectator regularly played a significant role in keeping them sane.
My last surprise was visual rather than political. In offering to drive me back to my hotel one of my hosts requested my help in removing a stick insect of about the length and girth of a car jack from the windscreen of his car where it was clinging with great tenacity to the wiper blades.
Clearly I still had much to learn back then about the physical as well as psychological make-up of my new and largely unfamiliar country of residence.
In the next few years I conducted painting classes for members of art groups at locations as diverse as Yeppoon, Proserpine, Cooktown and Jowalbinna and also flew, in the company of a couple of artist friends, to Moree, Longreach, Birdsville, Uluru, Coober Pedy, Wilpena Pound and Broken Hill. On another occasion three of us travelled from Bathurst to Broome in an even smaller, single-engined plane. The only other airborne object we saw on the entire trip was a wedge-tailed eagle which peered into our cockpit with a look of genuine amazement. What were we doing in his sky where eagles had ruled the roost since time immemorial?
For a previously, country-born but latterly city-dwelling Pom such forays were unforgettable. Yet how can the wonderfully remote Australia I experienced – where the night skies throb with uncountable stars – ever have allowed itself to fall entirely by now under the often senseless influence of our urban masters? When and why did our national backbone go missing?
Exactly a hundred years ago typical Australian country boys were among those who showed extraordinary valour in the unfamiliar, shell-torn landscape of Northern France. Just one of such venues was Pozières where one of my mother’s elder brothers lost a lung fighting alongside the Australians. After that war my grandfather built a house for him where I, perhaps prophetically, spent much of my childhood and periods of leave from military service: Pozières.
Almost all Australians I knew before coming here were people I met through playing sport e.g. at the late Lew Hoad’s tennis ranch at Mijas in Spain. All were highly competitive yet modest as well as excellent company after the game. For example it took me five years after coming here to discover that my Sydney dentist doubled as an Olympic yachtsman.
Australia is certainly not the only country which has lost a vital part of its traditional character during the past quarter of a century, but being a relatively ‘new’ country possibly lacks the kind of self-righting mechanisms which could help bring us back to our senses. For example, the tedious theories of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were at the absolute height of their fame here long after they were largely dismissed in intellectual circles in Paris. Is it a lack of self-confidence which makes us reach so avidly for the new yet neglect the remarkable talents of the home-grown?
When I still wrote regularly here about art I would point out the host of reasons why our own William Robinson is a vastly more accomplished and significant artist than, say, David Hockney yet has never been chosen to represent Australia internationally. The content and meaning of Robinson’s Creation series of vast landscapes could hardly be more quintessentially Australian and yet they remain excitingly universal in their spiritual force.
On my subsequent travels through rural Australia I found the memorials to Australia’s fallen in two world wars were often the most significant structures their humble towns could offer – not least because they remind us of something unique which once exemplified the men and women of this country. Words such as toughness, courage and self-sacrifice still had a significant role to play then in an Australian vocabulary which had yet to be ‘deconstructed’ for the benefit of generations of brainwashed and intimidated Australian students. What on earth have we been doing to our young?
What precise role would so-called gender fluidity play if we suddenly found ourselves facing international conflict once again? Indeed, with few notable exceptions, how would our present politicians conduct themselves if confronted by the kind of circumstances faced with calmness and courage by their fathers and grandfathers?
As a teenager my wife’s late father was once forced to sustain himself by eating flower bulbs while hidden under the floorboards of his family’s home in Holland. That was towards the end of WWII – an event which should surely have brought the entire world to its senses for the foreseeable future. How sad that Australia appears intent now on forgetting not just its often admirable past but the shattering events themselves which once brought many fine people to these welcoming shores.
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